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NUMBERS, PLEASE! Even at this late date, the Post and the Times can’t agree on the most basic numbers: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2010

Funniest, worst reports ever: On Monday, a gang of New Yorkers succumbed to a con; they agreed to pay $50 (each) to hear Steve Martin talk about art. In this morning’s New York Times, Felicia Lee reports the fall-out.

Martin has escaped to Miami. So far, police aren’t involved.

It’s one of the funniest news reports ever. This is one of the worst.

Good lord! We’ve read a lot of scripted reports about urban school systems down through the years. This is a masterwork of the genre; it’s scripted in myriad ways. We’ll discuss the piece tomorrow, complete with praise for Diane Ravitch. But here’s one quick point: If you read the report today, can you spot a basic analytical element which hasn’t been included?

We’ve always said it: You really can’t run an urban system without (reliable) annual testing. From this truly awful report, can you start to see why we say this?

Special report: Newsroom culture!

PART 4—NUMBERS, PLEASE (permalink): Good grief! Unfortunate aspects of press corps culture were put on vivid display in last Sunday’s Washington Post.

One example: Did you know that big journalists are frightened by numbers? Did you know that they find their cluelessness “charming?” So wrote Andrew Alexander, the paper’s ombudsman, citing an array of experts who seemed to agree with his view.

Perfectly seriously, Alexander suggested the Post should provide “remedial math” to its tribe of bungling scribes. We thought of this as we struggled through David Broder’s column that morning.

Others have criticized one part of this column—Broder’s suggestion that Republicans should test Obama to see if he is truly sincere in his stated desire for bipartisan solutions to various pressing problems. Good grief! There was no suggestion that Obama should possibly question the GOP’s sincerity on these matters. To Broder, the possible lack of sincerity seemed to come from one side only. For Digby’s take on this strange “Village Acid Trip,” you know what to do: Just click here.

Many observers noted Broder’s weird imbalance regarding sincerity. We were also struck by what he said when he discussed those Bush tax cuts. Nothing he says here is actually wrong. But we chuckled at the highlighted statement:

BRODER (11/28/10): Another [test of Obama's sincerity] involves the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts. Almost everyone agrees they should be renewed for the 98 percent of American families earning below $250,000 a year. The president opposes but Republicans support extending them also for the top 2 percent.

That is another issue on which Boehner and McConnell would be justified in challenging Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to negotiate with them and the top Republicans on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.

“Almost everyone agrees [that the Bush tax cuts] should be renewed for the 98 percent of American families earning below $250,000 a year,” The Pundit Dean wrote—and that’s basically accurate. That said, the analysts chuckled when then they read this part of Broder’s column. You see, they had already read the featured editorial which sat on the Washington Post’s facing page. Uh-oh! In that top-of-the-page editorial, the editors of Broder’s own newspaper plainly departed from the view he said “almost everyone” shares.

The editorial was titled, “Fiscal Fantasies.” According to Broder, “almost everyone” shares a view about extending the bulk of the cuts—but the editors just aren’t on that ship:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/28/10): [W]hy is Mr. Obama, having appointed the debt commission, proposing a permanent extension of the tax cuts for households making under $250,000 a year? “Now, this is actually an area where Democrats and Republicans agree," he said in Indiana on Tuesday. "The only place where we disagree is whether we can afford to also borrow $700 billion to pay for an extra tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, for millionaires and billionaires. I don't think we can afford it right now—not when we are going to have to make some tough decisions to rein in our deficits." Missing from Mr. Obama's analysis: any explanation of how we can afford to borrow more than $2 trillion to pay for making the rest of the tax cut permanent.

But the administration's arguments look reasonable in comparison to the official Republican mantra: The Bush tax cuts must be extended, in their entirety.

Broder’s statement was basically accurate; “almost everyone” does seem to agree that we should extend the bulk of the cuts, to the extent that this ever gets debated. (For better or worse, Obama was right when he said “this is actually an area where Democrats and Republicans agree.”) All the same, we had to chuckle. On page A20, the editorial board challenged the notion that we should permanently extend these cuts. On page A21, The Dean threw the editors under the bus. “Almost everyone” agrees with those extensions, he declared, consigning the editors to near non-personhood.

We chuckled at the conflict—but we were struck by the editors’ numbers. Why oh why did the editors say that extending the cuts for households making under $250,000 would force the government to borrow two billion dollars (presumably over the next ten years)? Almost everyone else uses a different number when this proposal is discussed. In today’s paper, the New York Times discusses this proposal—and uses that larger number:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (12/2/10): On Tuesday, looking for “sensible common ground,” Mr. Obama dispatched two top White House officials to negotiate with Republicans on the Bush-era tax cuts. The problem is, common ground has already been found—and abandoned. Both sides have long agreed that tax cuts for people earning less than $250,000 should be extended. That is more than enough. It would preserve $3.2 trillion in tax cuts over the next 10 years. Republicans, however, insist that the high-end cuts also be extended, bringing the total 10-year cost to $4 trillion.

In the New York Times, extending the cuts on people earning less than $250,000 would cost $3.2 trillion in the next ten years. In the Washington Post, this would cost only two trillion dollars—and the Post seems to suggest that we can’t even afford to do that.

Our question: Does anyone know why the Post and the Times are using such different numbers? (Updating Everett Dirksen: A trillion here, a trillion there—pretty soon, we’re talking about real money!) We couldn’t tell you, although we recall a period, in late September, when Democrats began to float the two trillion number, making extension seem more affordable; for several days, this became the standard figure in Lori Montgomery’s reporting in the Post. (For one example, click here. As we recall, the Democratic proposal turned out to include some disingenuous tweaking of certain basic procedures.) Ironically, the Times, which uses the larger number, is OK with extending those vastly expensive cuts. The Post, which uses the smaller number, strongly suggests that such an extension is part of a “fiscal fantasy.” (According to the Post, this debate “is being conducted on a bizarrely narrow playing field: whether to extend all of the tax cuts or just most of them.”)

Broder was basically right; “almost everyone” seems to agree with extending those cuts. This sets aside the more basic question: Even if most people agree, does this policy really make sense? We’ll only remind you of this: When Candidate Bush first proposed these sprawling tax cuts, Democrats largely opposed his proposal, saying the cuts were unaffordable. Now, in a much more difficult fiscal world, Democrats and liberals want to retain about eighty percent of his cuts. On a permanent basis.

Is this good policy? Who the heck knows? Such discussions simply aren’t part of modern press corps culture! On liberal cable, Rachel Maddow attacks the GOP’s hypocrisy: How dare they pose as fiscal conservatives while proposing tax cut extensions which will cost $700 billion? So she persistently thunders. Maddow doesn’t mention the larger fact—the GOP is really proposing tax cut extensions which will cost four trillion dollars! In his turn, Broder doesn’t discuss the merits of the extensions, now that “almost everybody” agrees on the matter. (Bipartisan agreement!) And our two biggest newspapers can’t even agree on the cost to the budget. One says the extensions will cost two trillion dollars, one says it’s 3.2 trillion.

For the record, that standard number is some 60 percent larger than the Post’s number. Never mind how we figured that out!

Gaze upon our modern culture! In truth, the merits of this ginormous proposal simply don’t get discussed—and big players can’t even came close to agreeing on the basic numbers! Heaven forbid that they should explain where their dueling numbers come from! You see, math is very hard, and modern press culture is remarkably slipshod. As your nation sinks into the sea, journalists play various tribal cards, agreeing not to discuss the merits of a proposal to which their favorite pols have acceded. And oh yes! “Newsrooms seem phobic about numbers,” as Andrew Alexander has said.

As he ended Sunday’s column, Alexander turned inspirational. “Scrutinize every number,” he urged. “Question every statistic.” (While you’re at it, climb every mountain!) But how about explaining those numbers—the numbers which are being used to describe the cost of the tax cut extension?

That would make sense in a different world—a world where journalists try to examine the merits of major proposals. In truth, we don’t live in any such world. Ain’t newsroom culture grand?

An irony returns—and is semi-applied: In this morning’s editorial, the Times returns to a major irony, applying it rather tribally:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Congressional Democrats were too timid to bring the issue up for a vote before the election and took a beating anyway. Now they are faced with extending the tax cuts in the lame-duck session and are bound to extend some or all of the cuts for the rich. The only real question is in exchange for what, if anything?

On Wednesday, the White House’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission released its final report, calling for nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years—the same amount that will be added to the debt by extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts.

The report, which gets a commission vote on Friday, is not expected to win the supermajority needed to require consideration by Congress. Not a big loss. The final report is not an improvement on the earlier draft proposal, which was a promising start in its broad strokes, but misguided in many details.

The Times returns to an irony here: The Deficit Commission “is calling for nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years.” But that is “the same amount that will be added to the debt by extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts!”

In a slightly more rational world, that might sound like a suggestion that we can’t afford to extend all those cuts on a permanent basis. But in the world of the New York Times, this irony is aimed at the GOP only. In this tribal world, we can’t afford the chunk of the tax cut extensions favored by the GOP. The much larger chunk of those extensions is favored by Obama. And so, it seems that we can afford those massive permanent extensions—although, in line with newsroom culture, the editors don’t explain why.

Ain’t life in the nation’s newsrooms grand? It has been this way for many years, as your nation has slid toward the sea.